Morgan Spurlock’s Hunt for Osama
by Paul Fischer
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Though it took him fourteen months to recover from eating McDonald’s for 30 days after making his documentary Super Size Me (2004), filmmaker Morgan Spurlock gained more than just 25 pounds and a 40% increase in his cholesterol count—he earned critical kudos, comparisons to Michael Moore, the Best Director award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar nomination. Though documenting the progression from healthy, active individual to overweight slob with high blood pressure and low sex drive had its risks, nothing prepared Spurlock for the praise—and flak—that followed. Born and raised in Beckley, West Virginia, Spurlock was exposed to art, music and writing at an early age, and was encouraged by his mom to find his artistic voice. As one of three brothers who took ballet—not the macho thing to do in a rural southern state—Spurlock sometimes had to let his fists do the talking instead. But he also loved movies and decided to become a filmmaker. The road to becoming one, however, was tougher than expected. He was denied admission to film school at the University of Southern California five times before he was accepted at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1993. While in school, he performed stand-up in comedy clubs; and after graduation, he worked as a production assistant on various projects, including Kiss of Death (1995).
Urged by a friend, Spurlock auditioned for national spokesman at Sony Electronics. He earned the spot and spent the next two years fronting for the company. Spurlock later used his clout to become an announcer for the Sony-sponsored Bud Light Pro Beach Volleyball League. In 1996, Spurlock called matches at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and later worked as announcer for extreme sports on ESPN. He then formed a production company and began making corporate videos. During the Internet boom, he created an online reality show, I Bet You Will (MTV, 2002-2003), which became the first show to go from the Web to television. Resembling Fear Factor, the show challenged contestants to perform outrageous stunts—like eating dog poop—for cash. It looked as though he was on his way, but misfortune struck when MTV canceled the series after one season. More than $250,000 in debt, Spurlock was evicted from his apartment, forcing him to sleep in a hammock in his office. Then a year later at Thanksgiving dinner, inspiration struck. While on the couch stuffed with turkey and pants unbuttoned to make room, a news story aired about two girls suing McDonald’s for their being overweight. Then a McDonald’s representative claimed that they were not responsible for the girl’s heaviness. “Our food is nutritious,” he said. Bells and whistles went off in Spurlock’s head; he immediately placed a call to friend and cinematographer, Scott Ambrozy, telling him about his idea for Super Size Me. Ambrozy responded: “That’s a really great bad idea.” Six weeks later, they were in production.
For 30 days, Spurlock consumed food and beverage only from McDonald’s—even the bottled water he drank was from the Golden Arches. He limited exercise to walking around New York and whenever asked by employees if he wanted his meals super-sized, he gladly accepted. Meanwhile, Spurlock monitored his physical progress—or, rather, regression—with doctors and a nutritionist. At first, Spurlock appeared to be normal. But soon he began gaining weight and his cholesterol levels shot up. Then he started to experience mood-swings—ecstatic highs brought on by fat and sugar, followed by depressing lows after the crash—and even began to have sub-par performances in bed (“He gets tired easily,” said girlfriend Alexandra Jamieson). After three weeks on the diet, one doctor expressed concern over the amount of fat stored in his liver and implored him to stop. Instead, he trooped on and ended the 30-day binge with a celebration—complete with clown and balloons—at a McDonald’s.
The documentary was selected to compete at Sundance the following Thanksgiving—one year after Spurlock conceived the idea. It became the darling of the festival, earning him Best Director for a documentary film and instant celebrity. The film then sold for a reported $2 million and hit theaters soon after. Meanwhile, Spurlock made the talk show rounds and was either cheered or castigated by pundits. Some felt that his intake of 5500 calories per day was not realistic; counter experiments were conducted where people ate an all-McDonald’s diet and actually lost weight. But such criticisms paled in comparison to the changes brought about by the film. Schools across the country began changing their menus, starting with eliminating fast food. Even McDonald’s joined the bandwagon by putting an end to super-sized portions and introducing healthier choices—including Fruit & Walnut Salad—to the menu. The fast food chain denied any connection between their decisions and Spurlock’s film. In May 2005, Spurlock released his first book, Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America, a companion to his movie. Girlfriend Jamieson—a vegan chef—released her own book, The Great American Detox Diet.
Then both appeared in a new reality series, 30 Days, where Spurlock and others spend thirty days living someone else’s life. Though he wanted to be in every episode, Jamieson had none of that—the Super Size Me experience was enough. But she agreed to appear in an episode where the happy couple moved to Columbus, Ohio, and lived off minimum wage. Struggles and bickering ensued. Other segments included a Christian man who lives with Muslims, a conservative homophobe who lives with a gay man in San Francisco and two typical Americans who learn how to live in an eco village without fossil fuels. Spurlock’s latest feature is Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, in which the director seeks to find the world’s mosr wanted man by traveling throughout the Middle East in search of some very profound answers to complex questions. He talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Paul Fischer: Was it merely impending fatherhood that was the inspiration for this movie. Why do you feel that you wanted to take this particular tack to try?
Morgan Spurlock: We actually got the idea for this film in 2005, and we were talking about making a film about finding Osama Bin Laden. It was about two months into preproduction that we found out that Alex was pregnant. For me, that was when the real movie was born. It was born out of, like—this shift’s been, not just where is Osama and why haven’t we found him, but what kind of a world am I bringing a kid into? So, for me, I thought there was something really—as a parent or as a soon-to-be parent, I thought there was something here that every, anybody who has a kid or, you know, or wants to have a kid some day, can relate to. I thought there was something here that affected a lot of us.
PF: What were the challenges for you in creating a balanced view of the Middle East? I was very worried that this would not be the case, particularly when you went to Israel, but you were able to strike that balance—was that a challenge?
MS: Well, I think for me one of the biggest things was to be very fair. I thought one of the biggest things was to make sure that we let people talk. One of the hardest things I did while I was making this movie was listen. You know, my mother would be very proud of me, because as a kid she used to say, “If only you’d listen, you’d be such a better kid.” So here, we would go into these situations where people were saying things that were hard to hear, and hard to listen to as an American. I think I just found that if I would let people talk and say their piece, than we could actually have a real conversation—I think those are some of the best moments in the movie.
PF: What were some of the most difficult parts of the Middle East that you had access to. I mean, they allowed you to have access to, but you really had to do a lot of convincing to either get into some of those countries or certainly get access to the people that you needed to talk to.
MS: It was very hard. We had to get a production company to sponsor us to go into Saudi Arabia. It was very, very hard to go into a country like that and film. In Pakistan, we were denied access over and over and over again and ultimately we had to bribe an official in the Pakistani embassy in Afghanistan to get our visas to enter.
PF: Which of the countries surprised you the most?
MS: I don’t know, there were surprising things in all of them. Probably Afghanistan. I guess the surprising thing for me is, here’s a place where there’s been war and conflict going on for 30 years, and these people still have such hope, and they still have such a great, you know, view of their lives and of their future and of their kids. But at the same time, they’re very disappointed in kind of what’s happened ever since the armed forces got there. You know, ever since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban back in 2001. Because they thought things would be much different. And it’s sad to see, you know, how disappointed they are.
PF: One of the most telling comments I think was, when a journalist in Jordan said that one of the motivations behind 9/11 was to get the Americans to fight, to send their troops over in a useless conflict. How disturbing was that to you, and do you believe that to be the case?
MS: Well, I mean I found it to be incredibly disturbing. I have a book that’s coming out at the same time as the film, and in the book they outline, al Qaeda has, like, seven phases. Like, there were seven stages of their master plan to change things, and one of them was lure the United States into a war here. The other thing was, the next stage was to start to disrupt peace within the region, with Israel and Syria and countries within, in that area. You start to hear this and you hope it’s not true. I mean, that’s the thing, you hope and you believe that these things aren’t through, but at the same time, you know, you don’t know. You don’t know for sure. And it’s very, very difficult to hear because it’s very disarming.
PF: What were the physical challenges of making this movie? Were there hugely difficult problems?
MS: I think the biggest thing is, when we got into very dangerous areas or we were out in the street in certain countries, you know, Americans and Westerners are targets. Whether you’re in Afghanistan or you’re in Pakistan, you know, you’re shooting out on the street, you’re interviewing people and then suddenly a crowd would start to gather and somebody would pull out their cell phone and call someone. You know, we had a security advisor that was looking around for us, and he’d see somebody pull out their phone, he’s like “We need to get out of here, we need to move!” We really tried to stay on the ground in a lot of dangerous countries for as little time as possible, you know? Sometimes we’d be able to stay in a place for like 30, 40 minutes, sometimes we would get out of the car, start talking to someone and he’d get the itch and say, “We’ve got to move right now,” and it would have been like five minutes.
PF: I presume you won’t be having a special screening of the film at the White House any time soon.
MS: I’m hoping, you know, I would love to have that happen.
PF: Do you see the film as being anti-war, anti-American, or the anti-federal government towards this whole situation?
MS: I think the film is incredibly optimistic in what’s ahead, I think that’s what the film is more than anything else. It would have been very easy to come in and make a film that kind of bashes, you know, what the United States has done in the last seven years, kind of what the United States has done in the past. I think what we need to do now is look ahead about what we can do to fix things. That’s what the film does a very good job of being hopeful and optimistic, in terms of how people view the United States overseas, in terms of what their hope is for America, in terms of what their hope is of resolving conflict. I believe that the film is very forward- thinking.
PF: What have you learned as a filmmaker since your first feature?
MS: I think that since Super-Size Me, and it’s been a fantastic gift, to get to do 30 Days, the TV series that we do for FX, to work with somebody like an R.J. Cutler. R.J. Cutler, who worked with D.A. Pennebaker for years, and really comes from this world of storytelling, it’s all about the story, it’s about people, it’s all about these characters. So I’ve learned a lot in working with him and working on that TV show. And ultimately I think it’s made me a better filmmaker, and it’s made me a better documentarian, and hopefully that shows in this movie.
PF: What does your work, and this movie in particular, say about the nature of subjective documentary cinema as an art form? Do you think that you are making a comment on the art form itself on the narrative of documentary cinema?
MS: No, for me, the whole thing is, after Super-Size Me and doing two seasons of 30 Days, where I’ve lived on minimum wage, and we documented that experience, and I went to prison for 30 days, actually 25 before I got released. I think there’s something interesting and exciting about you going on a vicarious journey with me. I’m going on this journey and I’m being truthful and honest with you, when I feel something you feel something, when I learn something you learn something. I hope that there’s a trust that’s starting to be built up between you and me. It’s almost like you’re going along this journey with someone you know, I’m sharing it with you as best I can. I don’t really try to put a lot of opinion and political viewpoints in the film. What I do try to do is just tell you how I’m feeling about the situation, and what I think I’m learning in the situation, but I want you to make up your own mind when it’s all said and done.
PF: Are you an optimist by nature?
MS: I think I’m pretty optimistic.
PF: Do you think that, irrespective of who comes into government, that this war will come to a speedy conclusion?
MS: I think all wars come to a conclusion, it’s just a question of when. The one thing that I think this film, that it looks at, is that no matter who comes into office, who comes in as president, whether it’s McCain or Clinton or Obama, there has to be a real look at our foreign policy. We may be winning the war on terror here in America, there hasn’t been another attack since 9/11. Overseas, we’ve really lost the PR war on terror. The way the United States is seen, the way that we’re viewed, we’re not seen as this beacon of hope and democracy anymore, we’re really viewed as aggressors, we’re seen as people who want to eradicate the religion of Islam. You know, and for me as an American, that’s not the view that I want people to have of my country. Hopefully whoever comes into office will really make it a point to change things like that.
PF: Had you actually found Osama Bin Laden, what would you have liked to ask him?
MS: I would like to know, How does this all end? How can we end this? How can innocent people stop dying? How can we bring a close to this chapter, so we can all find peace and security. As you see in the movie, there’s things that we all want and we all desire, and it is common, there’s a lot of commonality between us. Maybe we would have gotten a real answer, maybe there would have been an answer he would have said that would have made sense. Or, you know, or at the end of the day you might have just gotten some crazy diatribe, who knows? But it would have been interesting to have gotten an answer.
PF: What would you like to do next?
MS: You know, I don’t know. I think I’d like to take a vacation. I think I’d like to take some time off. I think I’d like to spend some time with my son and watch him grow up a little bit.
PF: Do you think you’d like to do a fictional narrative feature?
MS: Yeah, I would love to do a fictional film. For me it’s just finding the right movie. I’m a big believer that if you can make somebody laugh, you can make somebody listen. So I’d love to make a scripted movie that, like the docs I’ve made, has a sense of humor but at the same time deals with something. But I’ve seen a lot of scripts and those scripts are hard to find, so I think I’d like to make it—I think it’s going to have to be something that’s mine, something that I write or I adapt that’s very personal to me.
PF: Is there a Middle Eastern country you’d like to go back to after spending a very short time over there?
MS: Oh, I think there’s so many places I would love to go back to. I’d love to back to Egypt, I’d love to spend more time in Morocco. Pakistan is a beautiful country, the place is absolutely stunning, it would be great to go back and spend more time there, and the food is incredibly. And Afghanistan, the people in Afghanistan were lovely, and just generous and you know, just opening up their homes to us. They showed so much hospitality, I would go back to any of these places.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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